Celebrating the Lunar Landing

This article appeared in the Washington Times and the Houston Chronicle.

Why isn't July 20 a holiday, or at least universally marked as the anniversary of a high point in human history? Thirty years ago on that date in 1969, Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first men to walk on the moon.

Landing on the moon was the realization of a dream dreamt since ourprehistoric ancestors on warm savannas or in cold caves first gazed at thelights in the heavens and wondered what they were. The moon, so large andbright in the night sky, held a special fascination for our ancestors. Themoon's regular phases marked the months and suggested to the Greek thinkersthat it might be not some celestial goddess but another world. Thatunderstanding was confirmed in 1609 when Galileo pointed a telescope at themoon and saw mountains, craters and what looked like seas. From then on menmused about what was considered forever unattainable, a journey to the moon.

But in the 20th century, human beings exemplified the best withinthem bymaking that dream a reality. Aristotle was right to say, "All men by naturedesire to know." The moon landing was driven by man's insatiable curiosity,his need to comprehend the world around him. It required pioneers with avision of man's full potential, such as Dr. Robert Goddard, who in 1926launched the first liquid fuel rocket. It demanded the rigorous disciplineand exercise of thousands of human minds, attempting to discern andintegrate the millions of bits of information needed to meet the technicalchallenges of such a trip. And it demonstrated that those minds, byunderstanding the natural world, could command it. Dr. Werner von Braundesigned the Saturn V, a spacecraft as tall as a skyscraper, with theexplosive power of the largest bombs, controlled and mastered by man, tolift off the earth and carry astronauts 250,000 miles to the lunar surface.

Now people routinely ask, "If we can go to the moon, why can'twe..." andthen fill in the blank with whatever suits their fancy. Perhaps the answerto that question also tells us why the anniversary of that supreme feat isnot an annual celebration of human achievement.

The race to the moon was run by the U.S. government to beat theSovietgovernment. Although most NASA workers at that time performedsuperlatively, governments at best can achieve such goals on a one-shotbasis and then only at a very high cost. The Apollo program was tooexpensive to sustain more than a half-dozen lunar landings. And like anygovernment agency, NASA's bureaucratic momentum soon made the space programas wasteful and nonproductive as any other government venture. The spaceshuttle, instead of bringing launch costs down, drove them up. The cost ofthe space station has grown from a projected $8 billion to a minimum of $50billion, plus another $50 billion to operate it over its first decade, evenas its value to scientists has declined and its construction delayed for adecade.

NASA's record after Apollo is in sharp contrast to the expectationsof thetime. In the late 1960s Americans saw in the movie 2001: A Space Odysseythe vision of Pan Am flights to a giant, pinwheel space station, withshuttles going on to moon bases. That vision, like Pan Am, soon died.

Contrast this with the explosive growth in the past two decades ofinformation and communications technology. Although it might beinappropriate to declare Bill Gates's birthday a national holiday, mostAmericans appreciate that pioneers like Gates and Apple's Steve Jobs havemade a revolution in the private sector, offering new goods and services,making them affordable for most Americans and capturing the imagination andenthusiasm especially of young people who see what man at his best canaccomplish.

That could have been the legacy of the lunar landings. In the 1970stherewere private companies like American Rocket Co. and Conestoga competing forbusiness against NASA. But the federal government subsidized NASA andregulated its competitors, resulting in their demise.

Yet today there is renewed private-sector interest in providinglaunchservices to meet demands for satellites to handle telecommunications andInternet needs as well as to provide other pioneering services. RotaryRocket Co. and Kistler Aerospace each have designs for totally reusableprivate rockets. Moonwalker Buzz Aldrin is promoting an innovative rocketdesign as well as championing space tourism. If such ventures are tosucceed, NASA's activities must be further curtailed and a strategy followedto back the government out of civilian space activities. Only then, in therealm of space, can that first small step for man on the moon become onegiant leap for mankind.

Edward L. Hudgins is director of regulatory studies at the Cato Institute.